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It’s been 25 years. What happened to Idaho man who vanished near Craters of the Moon?

UPDATED: Sat., March 13, 2021

Looking at news clippings, flyers and photos, Sandra Bendele talks about her son, Richard Bendele, who was declared dead in 2003.  (Twin Falls Times-News)
Looking at news clippings, flyers and photos, Sandra Bendele talks about her son, Richard Bendele, who was declared dead in 2003. (Twin Falls Times-News)
By Laurie Welch Twin Falls Times-News

On a Sunday in November 1996, Richard Willis Bendele borrowed a shotgun to hunt pheasants at the lava-encrusted desert north of Kimama near the Laidlaw Corrals area.

Bendele’s family and girlfriend never saw the 29-year old Burley native again.

Several dozen people from across the Magic Valley are listed on the Idaho Missing Persons Clearinghouse. Some are runaway juveniles. Others seem to have few facts tied to their cases but no answers for the people who miss them.

For some families such as Bendele’s, the persistent questions, laced with ever-present hope, leave a mark on their lives every day.

Bendele, a J.R. Simplot Co. supervisor, was estranged from his wife and going through a divorce. He was living with his girlfriend and, by all family accounts, seemed happy and at a relatively good place in his life.

But thoughts of what may have happened that day still fester under his mother’s skin 24 years later.

“I would like for him to be found either dead or alive, just so I know,” 73-year-old Sandy Bendele, told the Times-News.

Other cases find a resolution, she said.

“Why can’t they find my son?”

Vanishing in the desert

The morning Richard Bendele disappeared, he’d gone to his mother’s house to borrow his deceased father’s shotgun for the hunt. He headed off in his blue pickup truck to the Great Rift north of Minidoka County where he’d previously hunted with his dad.

According to the Bureau of Land Management, the Rift, at 635 square miles, includes the Craters of the Moon National Monument and the Wapi Lava Field and is one of the deepest and largest recent volcanic systems in the continental U.S. About 15,000 years ago a fissure extending 65 miles opened to emit successive lava flows creating a lunar-like landscape.

The Rift’s topography consists of caves, ice tubes, spatter caves and cinder cones along with miles of rough desert terrain accessed by dirt roads but has few landmarks above the ground.

Sandy Bendele said her son — her only son — was an experienced outdoorsman who loved fishing, hunting and camping.

“He seemed quite happy that day and we had a little chit-chat before he left,” she said.

Later that day, he called his mother using a bag-style cellphone that plugged into a cigarette lighter that he kept behind the seat for emergencies. He said his pickup had broken down and he asked her to come and get him.

“He was uneasy,” his mother said. “He thought someone else was out there and had messed with his truck.”

Richard Bendele told his mother he was going to mark a nearby turnoff so she could find him. Searchers later found an empty beer box and cans that they thought he’d used to mark the road.

Being unfamiliar with the area, she sought out her son’s girlfriend, Syndi Kowitz, and the two set off in Kowitz’s vehicle to find him. Kowitz and her three children had been living with Bendele for about 10 months when he vanished.

The two women never made it to his truck. Kowitz’s vehicle struck an object, damaging the oil pan, and they had to turn around and head back to town.

At about 2 a.m., they called the Minidoka County Sheriff’s Office to report Bendele as missing.

Six inches of snow fell that night, covering the roads and any traces that may have been left by the missing man. Search and rescue found his pickup in Blaine County the next morning.

The case was then transferred to the Blaine County Sheriff’s Office.

“I knew something wasn’t right when they found the pickup,” Kowitz said.

A few other clues surfaced. A leather glove. A fryer glove, the kind used at the potato processing plant where he worked. One of his new black tennis shoes.

“I recognized the shoe,” Kowitz said. “He’d just gotten them.”

The battery for his truck was turned over and a truck window was smashed with glass on the ground, Sandy Bendele recalled.

They also found the cellphone and the shotgun inside the truck.

“He would have never left his dad’s shotgun,” Sandy Bendele said. He always brought it right back to her house after he borrowed it.

Day after day, search teams, dogs, planes and a J.R. Simplot helicopter scoured the mud-clotted roads and lava fields.

All efforts were unsuccessful.

Police told the family that the search dogs lost his scent by the road as if he’d gotten into a vehicle and left.

After a few days, she said, the panic began to fall across her like a shroud.

Barbed questions such as “Is he still out there?” and “How many days has it been?” cruelly poked at her.

She would reflect on the found tennis shoe and debate whether finding it was a good thing or a bad thing.

After four or five days of combing the desert and unrelenting bad weather, the search was ended.

“It was heartbreaking when they called it off,” Sandy Bendele said.

The searchers did a good job and they did all they could do, but still, she said, it’s hard not to assign blame.

Living in turmoil

Scenarios repeated in his mother’s mind. Did he walk in the wrong direction during the dark desert night and fall into a lava fissure? Or did someone sinister follow him out there and harm him?

“You wait and you wait, and you cry,” she said. “I still have a hole. I would just like to know what happened before I’m no longer here.”

Some people suggested that he disappeared because he chose to, but she discounts the theory.

“As close as we were, he would have contacted me by now,” she said, chasing away with a finger the tears that gathered in the corners of her eyes.

Kowitz said Richard Bendele’s paycheck had been directly deposited into his bank account after he went missing but the money had never been touched, and all of the clothes that he wasn’t wearing were still at home.

“If he’d just taken off, why were all of his things still there?” she asked herself.

Richard Bendele had taken over his father’s role in the family when he died, Kowitz said.

“He was the man of the house for his mother and for his little sister Tamara after his dad died,” Kowitz said. “He took care of them.”

He wouldn’t have just walked off, she said.

“He wouldn’t have done that.”

When Richard Bendele first disappeared, there was no reason to believe that anyone would have harmed him, Kowitz said. But, as the months went, by rumors — true or not — started to surface. Bendele had affiliations with drug dealers before she’d met him, which some said played a role in his disappearance.

Hours became days that stretched into weeks, and Kowitz continued to wait.

“I went to his mom’s all the time and sat by the phone,” she said. “And it doesn’t get any easier after 24 years. It’s still the most devastating thing I’ve been through.”

She eventually moved on to have a serious relationship with another person, but, ultimately, that didn’t work out.

“I believe Rick was my soulmate. I was never with anyone where I had the kind of bond I had with him,” Kowitz said. “I’m still taking it day by day. Because there was no closure, it still feels like it happened just yesterday.”

Looking for leads

Seven years after he disappeared, Bendele’s estranged wife had him declared dead. His mother, however, continued to hold hope that he was alive while steeling herself for the possible news that his remains have been found.

Several years ago, Sandy Bendele gave a DNA sample to an officer and she got a copy of her son’s dental records — just in case the records could identify his remains.

Blaine County Sheriff Chief Deputy Will Fruehling said he didn’t work for the sheriff’s office at the time of Bendele’s disappearance, but he’s familiar with the case now.

At some point prior to 2010, he said, the sheriff’s office lost the original reports for the case. They were possibly lost when the sheriff’s office moved, he said, but no one knows for sure.

Investigators have rebuilt as much of the case file as possible.

Fruehling said the case remains active although there has not been any new activity on it since 2014 when requests for the DNA samples were made.

“The DNA profiles were loaded into the FBI National DNA Index System,” Fruehling said.

At one point, he said, an unidentified body was found and comparisons made, but it turned out that it was not Bendele.

“We know we’ve done everything we can and everything has been loaded into the appropriate clearinghouses,” he said.

Reminding the public about missing people can pay off and help solve cases, Fruehling said.

“Sometimes it sparks someone to come forward,” he said.

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